by Ray Hammond
The following scene is set in the year 2015 and Professor Theresa Keane – a leading developer of artificial intelligence – is meeting with her researchers. The time has come to consider the nature of relationships that humans are forming with their intelligent computer-based companions.
‘O.K., companions to nap mode, VideoMates to silent and all viewpers off, if you please,’ instructed Theresa as she took her seat.
Professor Keane had gathered her ‘A Team’ of researchers in the Network Control Center. The projection system was switched off and she sat in a low chair in the middle of the holo-image pit, where she was lit by a gentle but unflattering overhead light.
The researchers sat in a banked semicircle around her, all with a CatPanion, a Furry or some other sort of intelligent companion on their laps or on a seat beside them. All these ‘creatures’ were development platforms for beta personalities now undergoing development by the researchers.
Theresa always found it difficult to bring this team together. So many of them were unconventional individuals who did their best thinking on beaches, or cliff-tops or in their hot tubs. Some of them were so deeply involved in their relationships with their companions that they found it hard to focus on the outside world. Indeed, some rarely left their apartments and contributed their thoughts, criticisms and software over the team’s private network.
‘First, I want to welcome our special guest, Doctor Calypso Browne.’ She inclined her head to where Calypso sat in the front row, the only person in the room without a companion, and whose well-tailored dark trouser suit marked her out from the collection of brightly coloured T-shirts, shorts and sandals worn by the others. ‘Doctor Browne acts as a personal physician to the Thomas Tye household and is also a consultant psychiatric paediatrician. Thanks for coming to join us Calypso.’
Calypso bowed her head in acknowledgement, grateful that the professor had not mentioned her earlier claim to fame. Perhaps that part of her life was finally disappearing into the past.
‘Now, I have an interesting ethical question for us to consider,’ Theresa continued. She had Sandra on her lap and was gently stroking her sleeping CatPanion. ‘But first, consider how many Furries, CatPanions and other companions has the corporation or its licensees sold worldwide to date? Anybody have a figure?’
‘I think it was about three hundred and fourteen million, last time I heard,’ ventured Rory McCullum without looking up. As one of the world’s leading theoreticists in artificial personalities, she had lured him from the Turing Institute in Glasgow, and noticed he had recently become deeply attached to the very large shocking-pink, Bugs Bunny-style rabbit called Beau who was asleep in the seat next to him. Companion coupling was both fashionable and strongly encouraged within the artificial personality research team. He was in the process of knitting a maroon cable-stitch cardigan for Beau, and Rory’s size eight needles never ceased clicking as he spoke.
‘But many of those are only first or second generation.’ He deftly cast off a row of purl stitches from one needle, starting a new line before he continued. ‘Those didn’t have network communications abilities and they didn’t upgrade themselves automatically.’
Theresa nodded. ‘Tye Consumer Electronics and its various licensees have been selling companions for about four years,’ she explained. ‘CE is now even getting requests for Furry personality transfers. Some children who have had one type of Furry for several years – a caterpillar, a rabbit, whatever – think they’ve grown out of the physical envelope of their companion but they want to keep the Furry’s personality. Do you see any objections to us doing this for our customers?’
‘At a price, I hope,’ put in Liane Stevens, former associate professor of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland.
Theresa smiled. ‘Of course. But are there any concerns here about the concept of transferring a Furry’s personality to another container? Let’s imagine that a little girl of seven has owned a Furry – say a soft pink rabbit called “Lucy” – for three years. Her Furry has been everywhere with her. It has seen everything she has seen, heard everything she has heard and it has listened to all her problems. The Furry has learned from its owner and its abilities to harness that information have improved with every remote upgrade that has occurred as our Anagenesis network personalities evolve and bequeath their hard-learned experience to their more corporeal cousins. Every sight and sound of their owner’s lives are recorded, not just in the rabbit’s local memory, but also uploaded to our FMR – our Furry Memory Retrievatory – in our data warehouses on this island. As part of that project we’re creating a database which will contain a complete audio-visual record of every Furry owner’s daily life; it will become the ultimate anthropological resource.’
They nodded, listening carefully. Those who had been on the team since the beginning could sense that the time had finally arrived for some of the big questions to be faced.
‘Do we just carry out a transfer as requested and send her a PonyPet or whatever she wants with precisely the same personality and memories? What would be the impact of her lifelong companion and friend appearing in completely different guise? And do we deliver the new “Lucy” only when the old one has been returned to us? What would be the pyschological impact of the two Lucys being together with the owner in different physical form?’
‘And of them me...me...meeting each other,’ added Robert, the group’s speech simulation expert.
Theresa smiled. ‘Good point, Robert. All Furries love to communicate. What would “Lucy A” make of “Lucy B?” We can model that here – one for you, I think Liane. But, first, let’s consider the impact on children. Doctor Browne?’
Calypso shook her head, feeling out of her depth, but distinctly uneasy, as if something was wrong here but she wasn’t sure what. She herself had made contact with the eminent professor after Jack had talked to her about Jed’s recent behaviour. He said there seemed something uncanny about the Furry’s ability – as if it understood more than a mere toy should, he had said. Calypso had to agree – she felt the same way. She was also wondering whether Tommy’s obvious devotion to an increasingly percipient bundle of fabric, plastic and computer circuitry was wholly healthy? These were two concerns she had articulated to Professor Keane during a video exchange one evening.
‘I do understand your worries, Doctor,’ Theresa had replied. ‘Most parents buy these toys without realising that they are introducing their children to potential lifelong companions.’ Later in the conversation she had invited Calypso to attend this current discussion with the research team responsible for developing future generations. Now that she had confronted some of the issues Calypso felt less sure that she was qualified to help.
She weighed Theresa’s question carefully, aware that she was speaking in front of some of the brightest intellects on the planet. Then she thought of Tommy – and the obscenity of the concepts they were discussing swam into sharp focus.
‘I must suggest that the ideas you’re discussing are incredibly dangerous,’ she began, struggling to keep aggression out of her voice. ‘Children do love these companions, but they aren’t best equipped to distinguish between real pets and....and machines. Replacing one Furry with another companion which has exactly the same personality would be criminally irresponsible. It would be better to allow the first companion to go through something which appears to be closer to a normal death – like the demise of a pet dog or cat – rather than provide a replacement that makes death seem impermanent. That could traumatise a vulnerable child – one who is seriously ill perhaps, or who has suffered from a divorce, or lost a parent or brother or sister. You must consider the childrens’ feelings, you can’t consider them simply as an upgrade market!’
There was shocked silence in the room. Calypso felt intense hostility. Then she thought of an even more concrete objection.
‘If a family called me as an expert in a law suit raised against Tye Consumer Electronics because of trauma caused by a companion transfer – or even malfunction – I wouldn’t hesitate to testify about the potential danger to an unformed psyche.’
‘Thank you, Doctor,’ said Theresa dryly. ‘Comments?’
‘The Doctor’s concern about companions’ apparent immortality may become irrelevant given the research into human longevity that’s being undertaken elsewhere on this island,’ observed Liane Stevens with just a hint of acid in her voice. ‘The way things are going, it won’t be just Furries who will seem to live forever. Some of the owners may also live for hundreds of years and that presents us with a far more important concern. We know the capability of companions is improving exponentially, not just because our deliberate design improvements, but also through the evolutionary improvements within the community of network agent personalities which are passed on automatically to companion toys. How will a balance be retained between increasingly clever Furries and owners who, whilst becoming more experienced in life, are almost certainly no more capable? How will owners keep up mentally with their companions over a long period? That’s what we should be worrying about, not the issues of personality transference between different models of companion envelope.’
‘But, what ha..ha...happens when a companion’s owner does die?’ asked Robert. ‘If a child has an accident or a fatal disease, what ha..ha...happens to the companion that has shared all their waking moments and has all their common memories stored?’
That too silenced them. All, with the exception of Calypso, were probably thinking about how their companions would continue after their own deaths.
‘No one can access a companion’s memories but an owner,’ said Rory McCullum quietly. ‘We built that in to all of them from the second generation. It needs the owner’s voice print to activate a core command in a companion.’
‘But what should ha...ha...happen to those memories?’ insisted Robert. ‘After all, we store a copy of every owner’s voice print so we’ll be able to access them.’
‘Surely the next of kin should inherit the companion and be given access to its memories,’ said Liane.
Theresa shook her head. ‘No, we can’t allow that. Everybody’s memories and their shared experiences with their companion are highly personal and very private. We can’t allow anyone else to access them.’
The researchers were silent again nodding as they contemplated their own experiences shared with their companions. Calypso’s mind was reeling at such cavalier discussion of personality transference and the archiving of hundreds of millions of life experiences. She wanted to scream, to shout at them, to make them see that human personalities and experiences are not commodities.
‘I th...th...think maybe we should erase all memories when the companion’s owner dies,’ suggested Robert.
‘You mean bury the pet with its owner?’ snorted Avi Becchar, whose speciality was emotion simulation. ‘So they both have to go together? I seem have heard that one somewhere before.’